“Why did not 93% people vote and why so many persons came out to destroy the elections?  These questions are important and need introspection.”

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Shantmanu, the senior IAS officer who is state’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) was depressed the whole day on April 9 when an unprecedented situation erupted across Central Kashmir. After the first phase of polls was over, he spoke at length in a freewheeling interview with Aakash Hassan, making candid admission, identifying grey areas and asking most pertinent questions.

Kashmir Life (KL): How was this election?

SHANTMANU: We passed through different phases. Initially we were a bit hesitant whether we should go ahead with elections at this stage or not, but finally ECI decided that we should have these two by-elections together. After dates were announced we prepared for the ground.

On administrative side, we had done all preparations but we witnessed that there was hardly any activity witnessed from political side. The campaigning, rallying was very low key.  We thought, with passage of time, it would pickup but it didn’t. But gradually I met political parties and deputy commissioners and then we started preparations.

On our side, everything went on well. I mean selection of polling parties, testing of EVM’s and all the other process were conducted smoothly. We were bit apprehensive about security situation and that is why we did ask Government of India for 300 additional companies of paramilitary forces.   But in between only half of these additional forces reached and the remaining half was stuck on highway due to bad weather situation that lead to closure of highway for four to five days.

Then there was flood like situation and that time also we were apprehensive that we might have to postpone it. But we kept our fingers crossed till last and when finally flood danger receded, we decided that we should go ahead.

What I should say is that our intelligence forces, our police forces, somehow did not estimate the danger of having this election. There was deployment of forces at every polling station. But unfortunately while we were sending polling parties we realized that stone pelting incidents are increasing more than what we had expected.

What I should say is that our intelligence forces, our police forces, somehow did not estimate the danger of having this election. There was deployment of forces at every polling station. But unfortunately while we were sending polling parties we realized that stone pelting incidents are increasing more than what we had expected. Normally our polling party reaches to the designated polling booths in night but this time some of the parties even reached in the morning because they were escaping from stone pelting on way.

When polling process started, nearly 150 polling stations were attacked. I personally feel hurt for two things: one that we lost lives and at that day I was very disturbed. I have not been in this sort of situation in my life. I felt that I am also party to what was happening.  Everybody is responsible for what happened. Those who came out to disturb democratic process of such a big country committed a big crime. Electronic Voting Machines, that is a symbol of democracy, were kicked and damaged. It hurts.

Death of young men and injuries to the people and forces personnel, but polling was near about nothing.  In the times when 70% and 80% polling is recorded, 7% is nothing.

Then as few polling stations were left, ECI decided that we should go on, complete one constituency at least, thus re-poll was held. By then, all the additional forces had arrived. We were able to deploy more security men than what was needed. But re-poll made not much difference. We can say that our one process was completed and that too without losing further lives, that is only gain.

For Anantnag as date has been postponed I have got mixed feeling being a citizen of a democratic country and as a custodian of election in this state.

KL: What are the problems in front of Election Commission right now in Kashmir?

SHANTMANU: I am baffled. This is our annual exercise and only four months back we enrolled new two lakh voters in state. Of them one lakh people were added in Kashmir only.  These youth registered themselves voluntarily and went through all formalities to get enrolled. But it is surprising for us that people are registering and then they are not part of democratic process. We thought that these one lakh would add to vote. If we would talk about Srinagar there are around 13 lakh registered voters but votes were cast around 90 thousand so it means that there is some lapse from every side. Partly, it was from political parties, somehow there is a force that is pulling people away and that gap we are unable to fill.  It is failure of intelligence that we were unable to understand that the gap is so wide. Yes we knew that poll-percentage would be less but this sort of turnout was certainly not predicted.

KL: Time and again political parties had cautioned ECI that situation on ground is not conducive for polls, why did you go ahead?

SHANTMANU: Yes it is true that we were cautioned. After one week when election dates were announced, I held a meeting of political parties and then deputy Election Commissioner came from Delhi and held another meeting. In both of these meetings almost all the political parties advised that situation is not conducive for the elections. But then as decision was already taken they said alright we will go for the elections. But political parties were not apprehensive of such level of boycott and anger. We were not cautioned by anyone that the situation is so grave.

KL: ECI is an independent body and despite being cautioned, dates for by-polls were announced. It is being alleged that behind the announcement was the pressure of ruling party?

SHANTMANU: No, it is not the case. In fact ruling parties also cautioned us that the situation is not conducive. But the caution from political parties and all that came only after elections were announced and even nominations were filed.

KL: Why didn’t ECI took these issues with the political parties and administration before announcing dates?

SHANTMANU:  Before elections, we consulted state administration as they have to deal with law and order. There was not warning or note of caution from them. If truth is told no administrator wants to say that I can’t hold elections. They don’t want to take the issue on their shoulders. I should admit that the mistake on our part was that we don’t take political parties in confidence and didn’t hold meeting with them before announcing dates.

KL: Given what has happened during Srinagar polls, do you think it will be possible to held polls next month in already restive south?

SHANTMANU: In South, every stakeholder will have to work in this month. Political parties and candidates need to go to people and we will also have to increase their security so that they can reach to people. Election Commission will have to work also and do publicity and motivate people for vote.

KL: How big exercise was election for Srinagar Parliamentary constituency?

SHANTMANU: It was a really big exercise. But still we faced the problem that we had not anticipated. But telling other side it was not really good exercise from political parties. In fact there were no major rallies or campaigning. In every district we had given permission at number of places where rally could have been held. But somehow candidates campaigned at very low scale.

KL: Is the unprecedented boycott a wakeup call?

SHANTMANU: See, ECI is just a body to conduct elections. It is not job of election commission to ensure everything is fair. This is overall responsibility of State Government, Government of India and society at large particularly. Why did 93% people did not come to polling station to vote and why so many persons did came out to destroy the elections.  These questions are important and need introspection.

KL: What do you think, who is responsible for eight deaths?

SHANTMANU: Those people who came out to disrupt are primarily responsible. Because election is most important process in any democracy and if anyone wants to disrupt he is responsible at first stage. Secondly entire security forces share the responsibility. What happens, sometimes, when these forces personnel are surrounded by situation, in self-defense or panic they react in a way that it costs life.

KL: Can the sudden arrival of forces to Kashmir from other places be one of the reasons as they had no experience of dealing with this sort of protests?

SHANTMANU:  Yes, it is certainly can be stated as one of the factor. As our paramilitary forces had come from other states and they are not trained of such situation because they arrive just before couple of days. But it is not that they are not trained at all for such situation.

KL: Candidates from South Kashmir except PDP candidate have decided to not participate?

SHANTMANU: No, that is not the situation. Once they have filed nomination, it cannot be taken back at this stage.  Yes we have received a letter from Congress candidate. He has written to ECI that we want to withdraw. But there is no such provision of withdrawal.

KL:  Is ECI looking to further postpone the by-polls slated for May 25?

SHANTMANU: That will be looked in future as there has been no meeting yet.

 

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